143. Lisa Miller’s Heaven Book Uncommitted to Afterlife, Spiritual Experiences, and Survival of Consciousness

Author and Newsweek’s religion editor Lisa Miller offers mixed messages about what lies beyond death.

Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Lisa Miller, religion editor at Newsweek magazine and author of, Heaven.  During the interview Ms. Miller discusses survival of consciousness:

Alex Tsakiris: Do you believe that the best evidence we have suggests our consciousness survives our death?

Lisa Miller: I don’t believe that’s the best evidence we have. We’re back to where we started.

Alex Tsakiris: So you don’t believe consciousness survives death.

Lisa Miller: I’m saying that it’s possible but I don’t know for sure.

Alex Tsakiris: [Laughs] Well, I don’t know for sure either. And no one…

Lisa Miller: Well, that’s where we all are. That’s where we all are on this stuff. We don’t know. We don’t know whether consciousness survives death. We don’t know what Heaven looks like. We don’t know whether our grandparents are there. What we have is a hope.

Alex Tsakiris: That’s not where most of us are living our lives. Most of us are living our life from making some kind of conclusion from the data we have. So why is it unfair to ask you whether or not…

Lisa Miller: I didn’t say it was unfair and I answered your question.  I said I think that there’s a possibility but I don’t know. I think that it’s a great hope of many people.

Alex Tsakiris: Why so noncommittal? I don’t understand that.

Lisa Miller: I’m not noncommittal.  I’m answering your question as best as I can. Truly I am.

Alex Tsakiris: No, you’re not. You’re answering a different question. You’re answering the hope question, but you’re not answering whether you personally, based on the evidence you’ve looked at in doing this work and writing this book and being the Senior Religion Editor at Newsweek Magazine, you haven’t told me whether the evidence that you’ve taken in has persuaded you one way or another.

Lisa Miller: I said just as I think about Heaven, I think that it is a possibility and that it is something to hope for.

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Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome award-winning journalist and senior editor for Religion.net, Newsweek Magazine, Lisa Miller. Miss Miller’s first book, Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife, was published in 2010 and she joins us today here on Skeptiko. Lisa, welcome.

Lisa Miller: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, it’s great to have you. I want to jump right into this because I have to tell you, as I was reading your book and listening to some of your interviews, I couldn’t get past that you as a self-described skeptic and I don’t know if it would be fair to say a non-religious person, why you are the senior editor for religion at Newsweek.

Lisa Miller: Religion has always interested me, from being a very young child. Religion talks about the human experience in a way that I think captures all of the mystery and magic and transcendence that comes with being human–inexplicable things, irrational things.

When you ask people about religion you’re in a way asking them to tell you what matters most to them—what they think about their families, what they think about their children, what they think about their existence, what they think about what matters to them, what’s most meaningful. So religion for me has been a way into what I think of as the most important questions in life.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay. But can we really study it from the outside? I guess I think of one of the religious scholars who always inspired me was Houston Smith, from Berkeley, and of course he went and experienced all these different religions. He experienced life and dove as deeply as he could into the religious experience. Can we really understand religion from the outside, from a journalist? I mean, I understand there are these culture war issues that we care about—why people strap bombs to their waist and blow themselves up. That culture war stuff I get. But are we really getting at the core of the religious experience from the outside?

Lisa Miller: I would say I can hear some skepticism in your question, and I would strongly say that trying dispassionately to understand other people’s beliefs is one of the most productive things we can do with our time. I think that in America there are these culture war issues and we know what they are and we can name them and we can turn on MSNBC or FOX and see people screaming about them. But beyond that I think there is dramatic mistrust and fear in the worlds between believers and non-believers and also amongst different believers.

So they say 11 o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. What that means is, Atheists think believers are weird and creepy; believers think Atheists are weird and creepy. And not just that but Born-Again Christians, people who have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, think that people who have a more abstract or intellectual idea of Jesus Christ are weird and creepy and vice versa. It goes on and on and on.

What I’m trying to do in my work and in my book is to say let’s leave all of that weird and creepy stuff aside because that just makes us mistrustful of each other. Let’s talk about what it is we do believe, why we believe it, how we exercise those beliefs, and try to understand it. We don’t have to love it; we don’t have to believe it ourselves. We don’t have to buy into it. We just have to understand that in America, 90% of people say they believe in God. So let’s figure out what they mean when they say that.

Alex Tsakiris: I guess that’s my point. To me, you’re not setting that all aside. You’re really making that front and center of the debate. To me, the interesting thing is what is the spiritual experience?

In your book, Heaven, you talk about a visitation that you had from your Jewish grandfather before your wedding. Then you quickly kind of brush that off as well, I don’t know if that’s real or not. Do you believe there’s such a thing as a genuine spiritual experience? Do you believe the encounter you had with your grandfather was, in fact, real?

Lisa Miller: I think you’re asking the wrong question. I don’t think that religious experience and transcendent experience and spiritual experience can be measured empirically. I just don’t. Otherwise, we would know for a fact what Heaven looks like and where it is and whether it exists or not and who is there. And we don’t know those things. We just simply don’t know them. So I can’t measure whether this visit I had from what seemed to be the spirit of my grandfather was real, whether it was more real than a dream…

Alex Tsakiris: Why can’t you? I mean, I think that’s such a copout. We measure these things all the time. This is the whole basis of psychology. Open up Newsweek Magazine and every article on psychology asks, “Do you like this more or this? Was this experience dream-like? Was it illusionary?”

These are questions we ask people scientifically all the time. Why can’t we ask you about that experience and whether you think it was real, whether you think it was a hallucination, what you think it was. Doesn’t your experience matter?

Lisa Miller: Um, yes. It matters very much. And it felt real to me, as I said in the book. Do I actually believe that my grandfather came down to Earth from some other place in a physical form? No. Do I believe I saw or felt something like him in that moment? Yes.

Alex Tsakiris: So why do you believe that he did not come down in some kind of physical or spiritual form that was able to interact with you?

Lisa Miller: Because I don’t believe that people come back to life. I say that very clearly in my book.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay. Let’s delve into that topic right there from another angle because I think, to me, that’s the other thing that’s missing in this discussion, and that’s science. If we do have any chance of sorting through this spiritual stuff and getting some distance from it, some objectivity on it, we do have to look at the tools and methods of science. In your book, Heaven, you say “Near-death experiences I view as inspired stories, not factual accounts.”

I’ve got to tell you, near-death experience is something we’ve covered quite a bit on this show. We’ve had a chance to talk to many, many of the world’s leading researchers as well as skeptics. Skeptics I’d say on both sides, religious skeptics and Atheistic skeptics.

But your opinion there just doesn’t really conform to the scientific evidence we have on near-death experience. It really says just the opposite, that these accounts do seem to be factual, do seem to be verifiable. I mean, that’s what the science is telling us.

Lisa Miller: No. Actually, the scientists don’t completely know what these experiences are. And there are some scientists—I’m thinking particularly of a group at the University of Virginia—who study near-death experience.

Alex Tsakiris: Bruce Greyson you’re thinking of, right?

Lisa Miller: Yeah. Well, not him anymore but his acolytes, the people who picked up where he left off.

Alex Tsakiris: Why not him anymore? He’s still an active researcher.

Lisa Miller: He has people who are much more active than he.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay. Go ahead.

Lisa Miller:   Working in his lab. And they say, when you push them the way you’re pushing me right now, they say, “I can’t say.” And I commend you to do so. They say, “I don’t know what that was.” I know these experiences seem really real. They will say exactly what I just said.

Alex Tsakiris:   No, they won’t because all you have to do is listen to a dozen of our shows where we’ve had them on from Jeff Long to Sam Parnia to Peter Fenwick. And I’ve talked to Bruce Greyson on many occasions. Haven’t had a chance to interview him. And you’re just simply not correct. Again, the point I was making was whether these accounts are factual, and the evidence comes in over and over again that these accounts are factual, verifiable. We may not be able to…

Lisa Miller: Verifiable how? Excuse me. Verifiable how?

Alex Tsakiris: Verifiable in the way the research I…

Lisa Miller: Can you go to the place where the people said they went and corroborate their visions?

Alex Tsakiris: Well, that’s what folks have done. I mean, if you look at the research…

Lisa Miller: No.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, I was just going to share with you some research. I don’t know if you’re aware of Dr. Penny Sartori in the UK. She’s a colleague of Peter Fenwick and Sam Parnia, two of the most well-known NDE researchers in the world.

Dr. Sartori did a very simple project where she interviewed near-death experiencers that had survived cardiac arrest. She asked them to recount the resuscitation and everything that happened during it. Then she was in a medical ward, a cardiac arrest ward, and she interviewed folks who had experienced cardiac arrest, recovered from it, but had not had a near-death experience. She compared the two. This is the kind of science that folks do all the time.

She found a statistically significance in the group that had a near-death experience. They really did know what happened during the resuscitation and the other group didn’t. Greyson published a similar study in his most recent book. So there is scientific evidence that verifies that the information that’s coming back is accurate, is factual.

Lisa Miller: I spoke to many scientists, both before my book and since then and I have not found a scientist who can tell me that he or she knows for sure that there is another realm. All they will say is that there’s a possibility that there is another realm.

Alex Tsakiris: Sure, Lisa, but I’m just telling you where the research is pointing us. This is science. No one is going to come out and say conclusively…

Lisa Miller: I’m going to have to disagree with you. I’m sorry. I think the most they will say is that there’s a possibility that there’s another realm and that we need to open our minds to that possibility where some kind of consciousness exists without bodies. But that is a non-mainstream belief among scientists and there is no corroborating evidence that the visions people have when they are not conscious actually describe something that is, as you say, real. There is no evidence of that.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, I just presented to you some evidence of that. I actually cited two different studies. What you’re relying on is the conclusions of these scientists which have to be guarded and have to be measured. But if you really look at the evidence as it’s presented as it’s published, it’s consistent with what I’m telling you. And I’d go on to say that really when you say this mainstream view—what we’re talking about here, and what I’m giving you is the mainstream view among near…

Lisa Miller: No. It’s really not.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, you can jump in there and say it’s really…

Lisa Miller: Among people who study near-death experiences?

Alex Tsakiris: Exactly. This is the age of specialization. Why would we expect a neuroscientist who hasn’t studied near-death experience, hasn’t studied end of life, to be an expert? Why would we go to him on what happens to people when they die? Wouldn’t we go to well-qualified people?

Lisa Miller: Well, because there is a range of scientific expertise and my book is not for people who fervently believe in near-death experiences. It’s for people who are struggling with that they think about Heaven, which is a completely different thing. If people want to read the so-called science on near-death experiences, then I commend them to the experts that you just quoted to me.

If people want to think about what they believe about Heaven, if they were brought up with a belief about Heaven that they aren’t sure they’re comfortable with, if they yearn to believe in Heaven but don’t know what their tradition tells them, if they have visions of Heaven but they don’t know where they come from historically, culturally, sociologically, then my book is for them.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay. And you just drew out another distinction that you make in the book and that’s the difference between Heaven and the afterlife. Maybe you want to tell us a little bit about how you see that distinction and then we can talk a little bit about that.

Lisa Miller: Okay. Heaven, the way we use it for popular discourse, means a lot of things that the ancients didn’t mean it to mean. It means a place in the sky where God lives; it means the place we go after we die; it means the place where our grandparents and our pets go. And it also means something about the Resurrection, although what it actually means is unclear.

So in the broadest popular definition, Heaven is all of those things. We’re up there with our bodies and our grandparents, with God in the sky forever and ever. But that, I argue, is a very unserious vision of Heaven and it’s sort of perpetuated by greeting card manufacturers and sort of thin spiritual purveyors of sort of a shallow spirituality.

I argue that in ancient times all of those different definitions meant something else, meant something specific, and that you could believe in one without the other. You could believe that you would live with God forever and ever but that place would not be populated with the souls of other people. Or you could believe that you would have some kind of body in Heaven but it wouldn’t necessarily be like your flesh-and-blood body. You get what I mean. We tend to lump all of this together.

Afterlife is a much, much older concept than Heaven. I mean, almost every creature before Biblical times had some kind of afterlife where pre-humans buried their dead with seeds and tools and stuff that they might need in another life. So the difference between afterlife and Heaven is everybody’s always having some kind of afterlife and Heaven in this place in the sky with God and other people and your body maybe.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay. But I guess that gets us back to the first topic we were talking about, these culture war issues and the way we parson and hammer out the semantics. I’m not saying that there aren’t a lot of differences that need to be explored there. Those definitions do matter and they certainly fuel this debate and they polarize us when we don’t really know what we mean when we say “Heaven” or “God.”

At the same time, I have a sense that we are getting away from the real issues that drive most of us, and that’s that we don’t care about the definition of Heaven. What we care about is this continuation of consciousness that is captured in this idea of an afterlife. So are you really drawing a distinction there that matters very much to people?

Lisa Miller: I think so. I mean, I think that my book forces people to grapple with all of this. What you’re talking about—the two questions that really interest me in the area that you’re talking about and the sort of the continuation of consciousness is individuality—if you continue in some way are you you in a recognizable way? And if you’re not, how do you understand the continuation of consciousness?

And the other thing which is part of this conversation that I find very interesting is this question of eternity because in all ancient and medieval conversations and writings about Heaven, about afterlife, Heaven is eternal, right? It’s forever and ever and ever. In many descriptions of Heaven it’s changeless. So what does that mean to an organism that biologically is characterized by change? We change every second. We learn things; we forget things; we grow old; we fall in love; we have children; our bodies change; our memories change. What we know changes. How does that exist?

Alex Tsakiris: Okay, but Lisa, now you’ve thrown me for a loop because you’re interested in continuation of consciousness. Do you believe that the best evidence we have suggests that consciousness does survive our death?

Lisa Miller: I don’t believe that’s the best evidence we have. We’re back to where we started.

Alex Tsakiris: So you don’t believe consciousness survives death.

Lisa Miller: I’m saying that it’s possible but I don’t know for sure.

Alex Tsakiris: [Laughs] Well, I don’t know for sure either. And no one…

Lisa Miller: Well, that’s where we all are. That’s where we all are on this stuff. We don’t know.

Alex Tsakiris: No. That’s…

Lisa Miller: We don’t know whether consciousness survives death…

Alex Tsakiris: …that’s unsatisfactory.

Lisa Miller: We don’t know what Heaven looks like. We don’t know whether our grandparents are there. What we have is a hope.

Alex Tsakiris: No. We have…[Laughs]…that is not where most of us are living our life. Most of us are living our life from making some kind of conclusion from the data we have. So why is it unfair to ask you whether or not—you just said it’s the…

Lisa Miller: I didn’t say it was unfair and I answered your question.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay, how did you answer it? Do you believe that…

Lisa Miller: I said I think that there’s a possibility but I don’t know.

Alex Tsakiris: You think there’s a possibility—well, that would kind of cover all the bases, wouldn’t it? Well, what would you think the possibility is? Would you be leaning more towards the evidence that you have suggested that consciousness does survive death or would you be leaning towards the evidence we have that suggests that consciousness doesn’t survive death? Where would you weigh in?

Lisa Miller: I think that it’s a great hope of many people.

Alex Tsakiris: Why so noncommittal? I don’t understand that.

Lisa Miller: I’m not noncommittal. I’m telling you what I believe. And I don’t think…

Alex Tsakiris: But it’s indirect. It’s not answering a direct question, which is–you can choose not to…

Lisa Miller: I’m answering your question as best as I can. Truly I am.

Alex Tsakiris: No, you’re not. You’re answering a different question. You’re answering the hope question but you’re not answering whether you personally, based on the evidence you’ve looked at in doing this work and writing this book and being the Senior Religious Editor at Newsweek Magazine, you haven’t told me whether the evidence that you’ve taken in has persuaded you one side or another or if it’s left you…

Lisa Miller: I said just as I think about Heaven, I think that it is a possibility and that it is something to hope for.

Alex Tsakiris: I don’t get it.

Lisa Miller: Well, you’re just going to have to move on to the next question.

Alex Tsakiris: [Laughs] I will, I will. I’ll move on.

Lisa Miller: That would be great.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay. So you were saying a minute ago that you think I’m skeptical and I guess I am skeptical. And I’m skeptical in a different way than you are because I’m skeptical of the real message behind your book, because I hear this hope message and I read it in the introduction that it’s really about hope. That sounds really good. And then I watch you on media outlets like the Colbert Report and you say, “Heaven is a silly idea yet everyone…”

Lisa Miller: No, that’s not what I said.

Alex Tsakiris: That’s your exact quote. I’ll play it.

Lisa Miller: No. I say that in our culture Heaven has become a silly idea. I do not think Heaven is a silly idea. I think it’s a very important idea. I think it’s a fundamentally important idea which is why I wrote the book.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay, tell us what you mean then when you say that in our culture Heaven has become a silly idea, yet everyone says they believe in it.

Lisa Miller: Right. So what I mean is when a pollster calls somebody on the telephone and says, “Do you believe in Heaven,” 81% of us say yes.

But I think that if you ask them, “Okay, what do you mean by that,” I know for a fact that they’ll say something like this: “Oh, Heaven is that feeling I get when I’m walking on the beach and it’s a beautiful day and I feel the sand between my toes.” Or, “Heaven is just like this trip I took to Disneyland with my family and we had all the cotton candy we could eat.” Or here’s one you hear a lot. “Heaven is a place where you can eat as much as you want and never get fat.” Or even, “Heaven is a place where the streets are paved with gold and there are gushing fountains and trees that have a million kinds of ripe fruits.”

Okay, so those are fantasies of human life that have nothing to do with some of the more important questions about Heaven like, What happens to our bodies? What happens to our individuality? Where is God in this picture? Does God exist? What does it mean to live eternally? What does it mean to see your parents again?

That’s what I mean by silly and I think that our culture perpetuates these silly ideas of Heaven in jokes, in New Yorker cartoons, in movies, in popular fiction. And I think that what that does is it stimulates a lot of people to go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I believe that. I believe that Heaven is a place with white shag carpeting. It’s like a penthouse or apartment.” Or any number of examples.

But those ideas of Heaven are shallow and they are not intellectually serious. If you study the religious tradition, the Christian tradition, the Jewish tradition, the Muslim tradition, if you study scripture, if you study narratives of Heaven, you will see that there are these questions that keep coming up over and over and over that these silly 21st Century conceptions don’t cover.

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah. Well, it’s certainly an interesting book. Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife. Lisa, thanks for joining us today.

Lisa Miller: Thank you so much.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay, take care.

 

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